William Augustus Meeker (1847-1886), aka William Miller, Billy Miller — Hotel thief
From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches. Weight, 140 pounds Brown hair, brown eyes, sallow complexion. Generally wears a brown mustache.
RECORD. Miller is a professional hotel and boarding-house sneak. He has served ten years in Sing Sing prison, independently of the sentence below, for robbing a boarding-house in Clinton Place, in New York City.
He escaped from Sing Sing prison with Big Jim Brady the burglar, in 1873, by bribing a keeper with $1,000. The keeper was afterwards sent to prison himself for letting them escape. Miller was recaptured, and returned to Sing Sing, where he served his time out.
This is a very clever man, and well worth knowing. He was arrested again in New York City on October 28, 1879, on suspicion of robbing the room of one M. Vanderkeep, a Spanish cotton merchant, who was stopping at the New York Hotel. The room was entered on October 26, 1879, and diamonds and jewelry valued at $2,500 were carried away. In this case he could not be identified.
At the time of his arrest there was found upon his person a watch and some Canada money, which, it was ascertained, were stolen from a gentleman’s room in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway, New York City, a few nights previous to his arrest. For this last offense he was held for trial, and finally pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison again on November 7, 1879. His sentence expired May 6, 1886. Miller’s picture is an excellent one, taken in October, 1879.
Billy Miller was an undistinguished hotel thief mainly notable for one event: an October, 1873, escape from Sing Sing accompanied by James Brady and assisted by Billy’s wife, Tilly Miller. Big Jim Brady (aka Albany Jim) was one of the greatest thieves of his era, but was not given a profile in Byrnes’s book–probably because there was no good photograph in Byrnes’s Rogues Gallery. Tilly Miller was the equal to any of the great female shoplifters of her time; and had engineered more than one jail escape. She, too, was never given her own profile by Byrnes, likely for the same reason.
Billy married Philadelphia-native Tilly (Matilda Ann) Myers when she was 27 and he was 21. He had already been married once; he already had a reputation as a gambler in New York City. A month after their marriage, in October 1870, Billy was caught burgling and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. From the day he entered prison, Tilly began planning on how to help him escape.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1871, James Brady had been caught in a botched jewelry theft in New York City. He was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing, but was later transferred to Auburn. There, Brady conspired with Jimmy Hope and Dan Noble to make an escape. They chiseled a hole around a water-wheel shaft that ran through the prison wall, and slipped out unnoticed in January 1873. In May of that year, New York detectives spotted him in the office of a bond-forging suspect, and were able to retake him, along with evidence of recent burglaries. He was sentenced to three and a half years in Sing Sing, and would need to return to Auburn after that.
[Note: For an overview of Brady’s remarkable career, read Laurence P. Gooley’s four-part article from Adirondack Almanac (2013) ]
And so, by late May 1873, both Billy Miller and Big Jim Brady were languishing in Sing Sing; but Tilly Miller was ready to break them out.
Billy had been assigned duty as a waiter to other prisoners who slaved over the prison’s limekiln, which produced quicklime (used for cement, plastering, laundry, etc). In that job, Billy got to stand around and gab with the guards. He approached one of the newer guards, John Outhouse, and, after getting to know him, suggested that Outhouse help him escape. Outhouse refused. Billy then suggested to Outhouse that he knew of a bank that could be easily robbed, and which had a safe containing $100,000; and that if Outhouse helped Billy to escape, Billy would rob the bank and give half the proceeds to Outhouse. The guard perhaps knew that Billy was just a hotel thief, not a bank robber, and still refused to help him.
Billy then told Outhouse that he had a friend in the prison–Big Jim Brady–who would give Outhouse $2000 up front for a few small favors: first, Outhouse was to fill a small tin box with a mixture of beeswax and oil, and then give it to another guard, William Many. Once Many returned the tin to him, Outhouse was to take it and a letter to Tilly Miller. Later, he would meet Tilly at the Sing Sing depot and take her to the limekiln station when it was deserted, so that she could hide a bundle there for Billy.
Outhouse at last agreed to the plan, and purchased the tin and beeswax at a local general store. He gave it to the other guard, William Many, who made an impression in the wax of the key which opened cell doors in Corridor 19, where Brady and Miller were kept. Many returned the tin to Outhouse, who gave it to Tilly. Tilly went to a locksmith in New York City, John Steurer, who made a duplicate key from the wax impression. Steurer also made a small jackscrew that could pry open bars and a lever to work it.
Tilly then met Outhouse who took her to the limekiln to plant the tools for Billy. The key she slipped to him during one of her visits to see him. Billy later gave the key to Jim Brady. Tilly’s last chore was to plant a bundle of clothes wrapped in newspaper near the limekiln’s woodpile, which could be reached from the Hudson via a rowboat.
One night in October 1873, Brady and Miller then made dummy figures of themselves that they placed under the blankets in their cell bunks. Brady unlocked his cell door, then walked over to Billy’s cell and let him out. Billy used the jackscrew to pry open the window bars in the gallery, and they slipped out onto the grounds. From there they went to the lumber pile, retrieved the clothes left there, and waited for a rowboat.
Though their escape plan worked perfectly, Billy Miller and Jim Brady’s triumph was short-lived: Billy was recaptured several weeks later; and Brady was caught a month later in Wilmington, Delaware, with a bank-robbery gang that included Jimmy Hope, Ike Marsh, Tom McCormick, and George Bliss.
Though Tilly Miller and James Brady went on to several more adventures in their separate careers, Billy Miller served out his ten-year term and was released in 1879. Just a few weeks after his discharge, he was arrested again for hotel thefts in New York City. His sentence: another ten years in Sing Sing. Billy was pardoned in April 1886 for medical reasons, went home to Newark, New Jersey, and died a few days later.